GolfTEC inspires more, and better, play

Instructor Andy Hilts works with Doug Hartley at GolfTEC’s corporate headquarters in Centennial, Colo., near Denver.

Among the litany of reasons golfers give for becoming non-golfers, a few are cited often enough that they sound like a chorus.

The game’s too difficult.

It’s too expensive.

I’m just not having fun.

Joe Assell, a former teacher of the year for the PGA of America’s Colorado Section, has heard the laments, but he insists they all stem from a single, underlying problem: Disgruntled golfers simply don’t achieve a threshold of satisfaction to justify the time and money spent.

In other words, golf is not a good value for them.

Fixing that equation has become Assell’s career mission. As co-founder of GolfTEC, which delivers 21st-century, technology-based instruction rather than Band-Aid swing fixes, he’s addressing a frequently overlooked aspect in the industry’s efforts to grow the game: poor player retention.

That deficiency, some observers say, creates a scenario akin to pouring water into a leaky bucket. In 2011, golf attracted 3.5 million beginners or individuals who hadn’t played in more than a year, according to the National Golf Foundation. But the gain was more than negated by the 3.9 million golfers who quit playing last year.

Better teaching would halt the exodus, Assell says.

“When golfers taste pars and birdies and they keep getting better, they play more,” he says.

His conclusion is drawn from experience. Since its founding in 1995, GolfTEC has given nearly 4 million lessons, and last year accounted for more than 25 percent of all lessons taught in the U.S. – a company claim that has been corroborated by industry estimates.

Perhaps more impressive, GolfTEC surveys show that the company’s clients typically play 40 rounds annually and, on average, report a seven-stroke improvement in their scores. Though Assell concedes that numerous variables aren’t factored in the survey – for example, how much students practice independently or how long they have received instruction – customer satisfaction is evident in GolfTEC’s growth.

With a combination of company-owned stores and franchised operations, GolfTEC has 160 centers in the United States and a handful more in Canada and Japan. The company’s projections indicate that the domestic market is at 50 percent capacity, so Assell plans to continue expanding steadily. Next year, GolfTEC intends to open 20 locations in the U.S.

GolfTEC instruction is conducted almost exclusively indoors, with computers, sensors and digital video technology capturing students’ every motion as they strike balls into nets. Some facilities also use launch monitors and simulators to track shot data and ball flight.

But at the core of GolfTEC’s teaching business is a proprietary database documenting swing profiles of 150 tour professionals, mostly PGA Tour players, which the company gathered as a former technology partner with the Tour’s fitness trailer. By analyzing the database, GolfTEC determined optimal swing measurements for “24 key ranges of motion” that result in peak performance.

“The starting point for us is all based on research and facts,” Assell says. “We’re not about preaching a swing theory.”

The teaching staff comprises more than 500 “certified personal coaches” – 85 percent are PGA pros. (The others are PGA apprentices or golf academy graduates.) All instructors, regardless of their PGA status, must pass a company training program that focuses on using technology as a diagnostic tool and teaching proper “sequencing” to build an effective swing.

For some skeptical golfers, learning how to play an outdoor sport in an indoor environment may seem incongruous. But Austen Millet, manager and coach at the GolfTEC Millenia facility in Orlando, Fla., insists practicing indoors is more conducive to quicker learning. The reason? Adopting new swing techniques is easier when students aren’t worrying about results.

“When you’re trying something new out on a driving range, you’ll be uncomfortable, and odds are, you’ll hit some stray shots,” says Millet, who has taught more than 12,000 lessons during the past six years. “You’ll start managing the outcome, which means lapsing into old habits.”

By contrast, golfers at GolfTEC can ingrain the correct technique or position by repeating drills properly with the benefit of video review. In addition, all students are given online accounts so they can “replay” lessons at their convenience.

Such access underscores instructors’ expectations that students will practice what they are taught. Indeed, GolfTEC abhors the notion of a quick fix. It offers a la carte lessons, but at $95 per session the pricing almost serves as a deterrent. Rather, the company recommends improvement plans lasting 3 to 12 months. As many as 52 lessons are available in a yearlong program, at a cost of about $53 per session.

Though GolfTEC executives say their system works for players of any age, gender or ability, about half of their clients are “males in the 35- to 65-age range and 5- to 25-handicap range” seeking to improve their games.

Says Assell: “We’re trying to expand our audience, but retaining and strengthening core golfers. . . . That’s where we clearly see our role.”

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